“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien reflects the author’s experiences as an infantry soldier during the Vietnam war. Although O’Brien objected to the war, he served with distinction receiving a Purple Heart. His war experiences set O’Brien on the path to becoming an accomplished writer.
The story uses an unusual approach by telling the stories of soldiers and their experiences through the items that they carry with them. His purpose is to portray the physical and psychological realities of war. The author describes the difficulties and hazards of marching through the Viet Nam war zone and the negative impact of subsisting with fear and death ever present.
According to an interview with O’Brien, this story arose from the word “carry.” He stated:
“Art can be born out of playful intent, having fun. And my idea was to have fun with the word ‘carry.’ I wanted to find how many ways can I use the word.”
Soldiers have to carry many things as necessities for survival. These are the items that most readers would expect the soldier to have with him. There are many other reasons for carrying articles with them.
To maintain identity- These are things that portray how the soldiers define themselves and their individuality
A hygienist carries vitamins and personal cleanliness; a Christian Indian has his New Testament, his grandfather’s hatchet and moccasins; a womanizer has his condoms.
Reminders of home- These are the things that remind the soldier what awaits him at home
One carries letter and pictures of his girlfriend; one carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose; others carry candy, comics, a slingshot.
To avoid bad luck-These items provide confidence by carrying superstitious charms
A good luck pebble; a rabbit’s foot; another carries a thumb cut from a Viet Cong corpse
Intangible elements-These are emotional baggage of men who might die
Grief, love, terror, longing,
The soldier carried diseases- Malaria, dysentery, ringworm, fungus, lice
The soldiers carried admirable qualities-poise, dignity, honor, camaraderie
They carried cowardice-to run, to hide, to freeze, and to fear
Survival methods were important to have on their backs and in their heads. In Viet Nam, the reality of death never goes away. To counteract the intense fear of dying, each soldier would choose a role to enact like an actor. The roles went from proud, arrogant, shy, good humored, joker, and macho.
Throughout the story, the death of Ted Lavender aides in establishing a time frame. For example, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross receives a good-luck charm from his wife the week before Lavender dies.
Before Lavender died there were 17 men in the platoon, and whoever drew the number seventeen would strip off his gear and crawl in head first with a flashlight and a .45 caliber pistol.
The Lieutenant felt extreme guilt for his death. Lavender died from a sniper’s bullet when he wandered away from the other soldiers. The officer determined that his own laxity with the soldiers caused Lavender not to obey orders. Now, he needed to tighten his discipline in order to keep the platoon safe.
The Lieutenant burns all of his memories of wife and their life together, so he would have no distractions while leading his men. Lieutenant Cross, only twenty-two, knew that this was only a symbolic gesture; however, it helped give him some relief from his guilt. Thus, he became even more dedicated to becoming a better leader and officer.